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Not more than a couple of hundred nomads lived here in the 1920s, in the auls of Kengir and Bekbolat, making it the most thinly populated area in all Kazakhstan. An aerial view reveals nothing but bare, red-brown soil. Then, out of nowhere, two vast lakes appear, along with traces of a settlement. A large town can be discerned on the bank of the snaking northern lake-this is Zhezkazgan ("the place where copper is dug up"), situated in the middle of the steppe, but nevertheless provided with a plentiful supply of water from the huge Kengir and Zhezdi reservoirs, which stand in sharp contrast to the bare, dry steppe scenery. The reservoirs were built in the 1930s to supply the industry, population and embryonic agriculture of the region.

The mining of copper in this area has a history dating back thousands of years, but Western attention to the mineral wealth of the place was drawn by the journal notes made in 1771 by Captain Nikolai Richkov. The copper reserves were registered to an industrialist named Ushakov in 1847 but serious efforts to extract them awaited the arrival of British investors, in the shape of the Spassky Copper Mine Ltd, registered in 1904. The British scheme involved the mining of copper ore at reserves to the northwest of what is now Zhezkazgan, the mining of coal from deposits around Baikonur (the place from which the modern- day space complex, hundreds of kilometres away, gets its name), further to the west, and the construction of a concentrator, and eventually smelter, at Karsakpay, around 100km from Zhezkazgan, which lay between the two deposits. The arrival of the Bolsheviks put an end to British activity in the region, though the Karsakpay smelter was eventually completed in 1928.

The Soviet-era development of Zhezkazgan owes much to the work of the Kazakhstani geologist Kanysh Satpaev, who argued strongly that the estimates of the Zhezkazgan copper reserves on which the British geologists had been working, as well as those favoured by many leading lights of the geological establishment in Moscow, seriously underestimated the true wealth of the place. Satpaev's arguments won the day, and the Soviet authorities decided in 1931 to set about the construction of a major industrial complex here. The use of detention camp labour was a key feature in building the new industrial complex - as it was in the development of the coal mines of Karaganda - and Zhezkazgan was host to a number of labour camps of the StepLag network. One of these, the Kengir camp, located close to the modern-day industrial zone of Zhezkazgan, was the scene of a prisoner rebellion in 1954, forcibly quashed by the authorities. A few buildings of the, Kengir camp still stand near the copper smelter, though they are difficult to make out amongst the detritus of industrial development.

Zhezkazgan received town status in 1954. The completion of the establishment of an integrated copper production facility here, from mines to copper cathode, was achieved with the opening of a copper smelter in the town in 1971. (The copper concentrate had previously been smelted at the former small smelter at Karsakpay, and the larger but distant one at Balkhash.) Two years later, Zhezkazgan added the status of regional capital, though lost it again in the administrative reforms of 1997. The Zhezkazgan copper complex is now part of the copper company Kazakhmys. The operation involves the mining of copper ore at both open pit and underground mines around the satellite town of Satpaev, 18km northwest of Zhezkazgan. Most of this is then brought by railway wagon to the concentrator at Zhezkazgan, where it is processed into a copper concentrate which is piped to the nearby smelter, which produces the copper cathode. Another factory, adjacent to the smelter, produces copper rod from the cathodes. Kazakhmys employs more than 30,000 people at the Zhezkazgan complex, and its logo is everywhere in town.

The most central and also the remotest town in Kazakhstan is hardly ever visited by tourists. It is as though every effort has been made to make the place as forbidding to visitors as possible. Only one flight and one train every couple of days links Zhezkazgan to other parts of the country, and the railroad ends here. Bus trips from the "nearby" cities of Karaganda to the northeast and Kyzylorda to the southwest are a nightmare, if only because of the poor state of the roads. Also places of interest are scarce in Zhezkazgan. The surrounding land is far from idyllic, and the continental climate is at its most extreme.

Many of the 80,000 inhabitants of this astonishingly green town work in Kazakhstan largest non-ferrous metal factory. Kazahymys. In recent years, this business was able to make a large profit thanks to rising prices of raw materials, and consequently the inhabitants also benefited. Kazakhmys is the main sponsor of many sports clubs, and supports an annual competition of Kazakh folk singers, the national "aitys", which has become so popular that entrance tickets get sold out weeks before the event.

A visit to the local history museum is worthwhile; it plays an important role in tourism by preparing interesting excursions throughout the area, by scientific research of the region and by the popularization of historical traditions.

Zhezkazgan is well off the usual tourist routes, but serves as a good base for exploring the historically rich Ulytau Mountains. Fringed to the north by the Kengir Reservoir, constructed by damming the Kengir River to meet the needs of the copper complex for water, the town's setting is rather attractive. Industrial chimneys apart, that is.

Getting there

Zhezkazgan's airport is 10km to the south of town. Air Astana operate six flights a week here from Astana. This is one of the 'social flights': uneconomic routes operated at cheap rates with government support. There are also couple of flights a week to Almaty.

The bus station is at the southern edge of town, a couple of kilometres to the south of the central Metallurgov Square, down Satpaev Street and over the railway bridge. There are a couple of departures daily to the village of Ulytau. The railway station sits close by.